Black Cat
Wildfires destroy things, but they produce things as well. Bill Vaughn 

AS THE BURNING FORESTS lit up the night we sat in the back yard with Martinis and binoculars to watch the big show. The nearest of these infernos, the Black Cat, had grown to more than 10,000 acres, and was only a couple miles away. High up on the ridges above Interstate 90 the Ponderosas crowned out with spectacular explosions that looked like solar flares. Much later, as we lay in bed listening to the wind, the flames cast a flickering aura on the walls of our house, filling the place with a cheery glow.

I had followed the life of this fire from its birth, a tree struck by lightning that smoldered for days before bursting into full bloom one hot August afternoon in a forest ravaged by drought, global warming, and misguided managers who had suppressed harmless fires for generations until the deadfall on the ground had grown to dangerous levels. Now hundreds of firefighters were risking their lives to conquer this beast, named after a Forest Service road through the area, taxpayers would spend $8 million, and scores of people living in the area had been forced to evacuate.

I couldn’t have been happier.

Over the years I had heated our house with pine harvested from our little forest along the Clark Fork River in western Montana. These were young and old Ponderosas stressed by drought and flood, then attacked and killed by bark beetles (why one tree gets sick and another one right next to it never shows a symptom is a mystery to me). But there were only enough of these dead trees left to get us through the coming winter. The winter after that I’d have to find another source of wood.

Well, yes, there was the electric furnace, which would make the house toasty—at a cost of more than $300 a month. There was also a heater we’d installed when fuel oil fetched $1.50 a gallon instead of the $4 a gallon the distributor would be charging in the fall of 2008. Cheap Welshman that I am, I had vowed never to use either one unless it was an emergency like frozen pipes.

I knew that when the Black Cat finally ran its course it would leave behind so much firewood that getting it would be like picking corn in Iowa.

So in September, a year after the fire had been contained and conquered, I went to the Forest Service office at Fort Missoula and bought a firewood permit. The rules prohibited woodhawks from taking live wood, or any part of the Pacific Yew, a poisonous conifer from which the chemotherapy drug Taxol is derived. But for $20 I could bring home four cords of wood, a huge bargain, even though I’d have to cut it into rounds and split them. Still, this wouldn’t be new work to me.  Some commercial suppliers were charging $120 to $160 a cord, more if you wanted it delivered.  Another Jackson would buy me another four cords.

What I hadn’t considered were the side effects of harvesting timber in a forest as badly burned as the Black Cat. [read more]

On a clear September afternoon I drove from Dark Acres to Mill Creek Road outside Frenchtown in my old Chevy pickup and climbed into the Lolo National Forest on Black Cat Road, a narrow, washboard scraped from the ridges.

Although the floor of the forest was lush and green, I was staggered by the devastation above it. There were some hardy Ponderosas that had survived—protected by their skin of heavy bark—but the majority of the trees had been broasted. These were western larch, white pine, lodgepole pine, and my favorite wood for heating—next to hawthorn—water birch, which is rare in most highland forests but seemed common in this one.

I came across a tough bird at a fork in the road who’d already filled a stock truck with wood. He was covered from head to toe with soot, as black as a coal miner. He might have been thirty or seventy, white or black, I wouldn’t know, he was that filthy. I asked him whether I should turn left or right.

“There ain’t much up that way,” he said, pointing to the right. “A lot of them trees are dead, they just don’t know it yet. Next year we’ll go get ‘em.”

I headed left. When I came to a turn-out on a switchback I backed into it. Rising above me along a ravine were dozens of tall, blackened trees rising from burned rocks and patches of soil that looked like they’d been melted. I slipped on a pair of overalls, grabbed my chainsaw and my gloves, put on a pair of sunglasses, and jammed earplugs into my ears. I hiked up the ravine a ways and studied the first tree of the day, a big larch, eighty feet tall. I carved a notch into the downhill side, then felled the tree with a cut through the uphill side. It landed down the slope just about where I wanted it to, and skidded even farther. The crash spooked a small whitetail doe, who headed for higher ground.  

I was pleased to see that the fire had charred only the first thirty feet or so of bark. By the time I had reduced the tree to rounds and rolled the rounds down the slope I was covered in sweat. And I was having a problem with my lungs.

It didn’t take long to fill the bed of the pickup. I started coughing, actually struggling to get a breath. I started spitting up black gunk. My gloves were black. When I glanced in the rear-view mirror I saw that my face was black, the whites of my eyes startling and antic, like Al Jolson’s. Before I drove off I picked up some beer cans heaved out the window of some loathsome redneck’s truck, and stowed them with the wood, a sort of supplication to the forest gods to make sure that on my next visits to this ravine some widow-maker didn’t snap off the wrong way and brain me. In the distance I heard the whine of two other saws.

On the trip home other motorists stared at me. My wife, Kitty, laughed at me when I got out of the truck. The dogs wouldn’t come near me. That night I got up several times to clear my lungs.

The next day I split this load with an awl on the patio and stacked it in the house on a pallet. About half a cord, it was hard and dry without a trace of rot. The truck was covered with soot. So was the patio, ditto my path from patio to pallet. The back door was splotched with black fingerprints. The legs and belly of our little Corgi, Lyndon Baines Johnson, were black.

Finally, late one October afternoon, just I pitched the last hunk of pine onto the truck, it started to snow. I had been thinking about going after another four cords, but realized that hunting season was three days away, and the Black Cat was the last place I wanted to be when the shooting began.

Back home, exhausted, I sat in a century-old rocking chair and watched the fire. Although a heavy sleet had been falling all evening the house was warm and dry. The dogs snored on their couch. Kitty snored in her rocking chair. I opened the glass door of the fireplace insert and fed the fire a chunk of birch. We’d bought the insert for $1300 in 1993 after collecting on a 75-to-1 wager in Las Vegas that the Atlanta Braves would win the National League Pennant, and had installed it on Halloweeen night during a storm that plummeted Dark Acres to 5 degrees below zero.

I settled back in my chair. The flames filled the room with a cheery glow, and I was soon lost in sleep.